Climate change is happening all around us. From dramatic temperature swings to the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, the world–and weather– is becoming increasingly severe and volatile.
Few people are more familiar with this than Bonnie Schneider, a veteran TV meteorologist of over two decades. In her roles as both a local and national weather reporter, Ms. Schneider has seen first-hand the impacts of severe weather, as well as its often devastating effects. In 2012, she published her first book, Extreme Weather: A Guide to Surviving Flash Floods, Tornados, Hurricanes, Heat Waves, Snowstorms, Tsunamis, and Other Natural Disasters, providing eye-witness accounts from survivors of extreme weather events, as well as practical tips for how to survive them. When it came to her second book, Ms. Schneider wanted to further her research into the connection between humans and their ecosystems.
“For my second book,” Ms. Schneider said, “I wanted to focus on the human impact endured from f disasters, and the greater frequency of extreme weather due to climate change. Plus, I’m interested in personal health and wellness. So my objective was to determine how climate change affects human health. The more I started looking into it, the more I was overwhelmed by the amount of material, the magnitude of the research to investigate, and, most importantly of getting the message out.”
From this research came Taking the Heat: How Climate Change is Affecting Your Mind, Body, and Spirit and What You Can Do About It, (Simon & Schuster) The book explores both the physical and mental toll that climate change takes on people, particularly when it comes to a relatively new ailment called eco-anxiety, and what we can do to feel more empowered in combating it.
What is eco-anxiety?
In its first chapter, Taking the Heat defines a new phenomenon that is affecting young people, not just in America, but around the world: eco-anxiety.
“Defined as the fear of climate change and its impact on the future life on this planet,” Ms. Schneider writes, “eco-anxiety, especially for children and Generation Z (those ages sixteen to twenty-five), is a genuine source of mental anguish.”
In its milder forms, she explains, eco-anxiety can feel like frustration and disappointment. However, in more severe cases, it can “overwhelm people to the point of unrelenting insomnia, difficulty maintaining daily functioning and according to the psychiatrists I interviewed for this book, eco-anxiety may even lead to self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse or self-harm.”
In her research, Ms. Schneider learned that eco-anxiety was widespread. “I knew that people were troubled by climate change; ” Ms. Schneider told me in a recent interview. “But in the younger generation, Gen Z, studies have shown that more than half, if not two-thirds, of them, are very, very worried about it.”
Eco-anxiety is shocking in its prevalence. “There was just a recent study published in the Lancet, where researchers interviewed around ten thousand young people, from teenage years to upper teenagers to early twenties, who lived all over the world,” Schneider said. “And it was incredible how this [anxiety] was pandamount on an international scale. For young people, there’s ae this global fear of climate change.”
In speaking with Ms. Scheider, I immediately identified as a sufferer of eco-anxiety myself. I feel guilty when drinking from single-use water bottles, coffee cups, and plastic straws. I have lain awake at night thinking about a plastic popcorn maker that I threw in a dumpster during a move seven years ago. I experience continued frustration with the state of the planet, with the perceived apathy about its future. In a way, it was good to know that I wasn’t alone in my fear. But I still felt helpless to the cause.
I asked Ms. Schneider about resources that help those overwhelmed by climate anxiety. She recommended two organizations that proved to be valuable resources for her book the Climate Psychology Alliance and the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. “They’re both terrific resources for information gathering, to help find ways to [cope] with this,” she advised. “Things like how to find a therapist, [how] parents can talk to young children about it.”
However, some of her best advice came in something that all of us can do right now: get outside and into the garden.
Nature & Healing After Disasters
We first discussed the importance of spending time with nature in the context of extreme weather, particularly in its aftermath. I asked Ms. Schneider if she knew of any examples of how being in the garden helped those dealing with complicated emotions about the planet. Her mind went to those she talked to in the wake of natural disasters.
“There’s a chapter in the book on post-traumatic stress after natural disasters,” she said. “One of the things that researchers have found is that people that are displaced in a weather event, like a hurricane or flood–their homes are destroyed, if they are forced to relocate – it’s particularly traumatizing…In many cases, it’s not just their home that’s destroyed, but their whole world gets changed around.”
In a fast-moving news cycle, it can be hard to remember the long-lasting effects that these storms bring. Ms. Schneider, however, points out in her book that the memory of severe weather can linger long after the event has passed. She told me about a woman she had interviewed for her first book, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina who still reaches out whenever there is the threat of another storm. “She’s still scared because she still has the traumatic memories that get triggered during hurricane season.,” Ms. Schneider explained.
But humans are resilient, and just as she has seen the pain caused by storms, Ms. Schneider has also seen how those affected have been able to bounce back. Her book tells the story of the people of Far Rockaway, New York, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, particularly those who tended the community garden at Beach Forty-First Street Houses. Once brimming with vegetation, when the stormwater washed it away, the plot was left barren. And even as residents were rebuilding their own homes, the rehabilitation of the garden remained at the forefront of their minds.
In her book Taking the Heat, Ms. Schneider quotes Keith Tidball, director of the New York Extension Disaster Education Network at Cornell University, who researches how humans can heal after weather events through reconnecting with the Earth. Ms. Schneider shares his perspective in her book: “People have an innate need to connect with nature, which intensifies following crippling disasters…Remembering that affinity and the urge to create restorative environments…demonstrates resilience.”
Ms. Schneider sees that story as a prime example of how we can regain trust in a planet that can feel as though it’s betraying us. “It shows how healing nature can be after losing everything else,” she said.
In Taking the Heat, Ms. Schneider writes of another community, this time in Puerto Rico, dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. At a farm school in Orocovis, students began to plant and harvest crops as soon as possible after the storm, the new growth in stark juxtaposition to the ravaged landscape surrounding it.
The director of the school is quoted in Taking the Heat, as saying that connecting with the Earth helped “give its students agency after Maria,” a concept Ms. Schneider believes ties into our relationship with the planet.
Nature as a Way to Cope
It made sense to me that reconnecting with the Earth through nature could be a way to heal after a disaster. But could it also help to heal those whose eco-anxiety is creating a love-hate relationship with the world around them? Based on her research, Ms. Schneider seemed to think so.
“Doing beach eco-cleanups or, simply being in nature–those activities have been proven to be helpful for those with eco-anxiety,” she explained.
Taking the Heat also delves into the concept of eco-therapy, a type of stress management that focuses on “appreciating and honoring the Earth, and lives at the crossroads of ecology, environmental activism, and psychology.” Research has shown that those who spent at least ten minutes (preferably twenty to thirty) outside in nature, three times a week, over a span of two months, had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Eco-therapy practices outlined in Taking the Heat include outdoor meditation, animal-assisted therapy, physical exercise in a natural environment, conservation activities (like those Ms. Schneider described in our interview), and horticultural therapy, also known as gardening.
Ms. Schneider continues to explore the connection between human health and the environment. Her website, Weather & Wellness, is a terrific resource for those looking to do mindful work around their eco-anxiety. From exploring the science behind our favorite wellness activities to focusing on how we can bring touches of nature to our indoor spaces, her research-backed content is enough for even me to breathe a sigh of relief about the future of the planet.
My biggest takeaway from my conversation with Ms. Schneider is that none of us are alone–not in the aftermath of disaster, nor in the unending panic we feel each day about the climate. In fact, these experiences and fears are the basis of what it is to be human.
Although the challenges we are facing seem daunting, our conversation was a great reminder that a big part of moving forward is knowing what we’re up against. Ms. Schneider’s research and insights helped me to view climate change from a much broader lens. She inspired me to do my part in combating continued ecological damage while also taking a moment to heal from eco-anxiety.
And, maybe most importantly this Earth Day, she reminded me that the first step to healing is to take a step outside.
Bonnie Schneider is an On-Camera Meteorologist appearing on various media platforms, including MSNBC, NBC News, and The Weather Channel, including Weather.com’s digital and mobile content. Previously she worked for CNN & HLN. Bonnie covered Hurricane Sandy for Bloomberg TV live from their world headquarters in New York City. She also contributed to the network on additional stories as a Meteorologist and Special Correspondent, providing commentary and analysis on the economic impact of breaking science and weather news.
Taking the Heat is published by Simon Element, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. It is available here.